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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Prisons are bankrupting America

President Barack Obama recently doubled his number of commutations by commuting the sentences of 22 federal inmates. According to a White House statement, “Those whose sentences were commuted were serving sentences ‘under an outdated sentencing regime,’” (emphasis added). Most of the prisoners whose sentences were commuted are in prison for non-violent drug offenses and would have already been released under current sentencing guidelines. 

This is far too little, too late, and hopefully many more commutations and pardons are yet to come. However, it represents a profound admission by the administration that the drug sentencing laws produced by the rash of “tough on crime” legislation was, in many cases, absolutely insane. It was also poor policy that has cost the country billions.

The U.S. now has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, higher than any country in recorded history. It is a national embarrassment that we incarcerate more people than any other country in absolute numbers and per capita — more, even, than regimes to which we consider ourselves morally and materially superior. Even during the worst years of the Red Terror under Joseph Stalin, a smaller proportion of the Soviet population was incarcerated. 

Although the American system is less likely to arrest and imprison for political reasons than the Soviet Union’s during the peak of the Gulag, our incarceration addiction has taken on a more pervasive class- and race-based character.  

According to a finding by University of Washington sociologist, Becky Petitt, published by the Population Reference Bureau, “Young black males without a high school diploma were more likely to be in prison or jail (37 percent) on any given day in 2008 than to be working (26 percent).”

Hispanic college students are 40 percent less likely to use drugs than their white peers, according to the National Institute of Health. However, Hispanics, as explained in Social Problems, are about 400 percent more likely to be imprisoned for drug possession. Consider that, in the wake of the Great Recession, the average Hispanic family has a net worth about 5 percent that of the average white family, according to the Pew Research Center. The rate is about the same for Blacks. I call this the 5-40-400 formula, and it is not a coincidence.

This is not only a moral calamity, but also an economic one. Although the rate is of course lower in other areas, The New York Times reported that in 2012, “The city [of New York] paid $167,731 to feed, house and guard each inmate.” 

Regardless of whether one believes that our country is actually so full of irredeemable, immoral souls as to justify history’s highest incarceration rate, it is clearly not fiscally sustainable. 

Considering that, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Nearly half (48%) of inmates in federal prison were serving time for drug offenses in 2011,” this is clearly the first and most urgent target of sentencing reform that must be addressed to fix this moral and economic crisis.

Legalizing marijuana is an obvious, proven part of the solution. It has already saved tens of millions of dollars for Colorado and Washington and generated tens of millions in tax revenues for desperately needed education spending. 

Three-strike laws and mandatory minimums that rob judges of the important ability to exercise discretion based on criminal record and other individual factors also need to go. 

The political will exists, and even the reddest of states are starting to respond. The Houston Chronicle reports that, in Texas in 2007, the Legislature responded to the incarceration problem with increased funding for programs meant to keep people out of the prison system, which successfully reduced the incarceration rate significantly. Several prisons have since been closed. The $200 million authorized in 2007 for diversion and new facilities was estimated to save 10 times that much money in prison construction costs alone. Closing existing prisons added yet more savings. This should serve as a model for the entire nation. 

Ultimately, perhaps the most effective remedy would be to decriminalize possession of small amounts of all illicit drugs. Portugal did so in 2000, which cut the incarceration rate profoundly. There were also substantial cost savings for society by the even more massive reduction in overdoses and HIV transmission, as well as a more-than-threefold increase in addicts getting treatment. 

This is clearly a profound problem that will require equally profound and radical solutions. We need pragmatic solutions that will force us to address the prevailing moralism of American society rather than continue to rely on draconian punishment that feeds the bloated and incredibly expensive prison-industrial complex.


Martin Forstrom is a senior studying sociology and Latin American studies. Follow him on Twitter.

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